It’s with somewhat prescient timing that the regional premiere of Mike Bartlett’s Contractions arrives in Sheffield. For, in a post-Brexit world, we’re now gripped by a sense of insecurity and uncertainty, with anyone lucky enough to have a job clinging onto it for dear life.
How did we end up like this, so in thrall to the corporations that dominate our every waking moment? We’re living in a time where the current Government is effectively serving out its notice, the official opposition are in complete disarray, and there’s a palpable sense of yearning for some sort of direction, some authority that will tell us it will all be alright. That void may, terrifyingly, be filled by the far right, but there’s another candidate vying to control our lives: corporations.
“Corporations are people too, my friend” Mitt Romney infamously uttered during his doomed Presidential campaign four years ago. And with the advent of the notorious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (which, amongst other proposals, gives companies the right to sue democratically elected governments if they threaten their profits), it seems that the humanisation of corporations is almost complete. My four year old niece could identify company logos before she could count to ten. We’re all in thrall to the brand, no matter how old we are.
So how far would you go to keep your job? What would stop you from biting your lip and uttering those tempting but fateful words “stick your job”? These are the themes that Contractions (written before the 2008 financial crash, so it seems even more prophetic now) explores as Bartlett tells the tale of Emma, an employee being quietly but effectively investigated by a nameless manager for breaching the company’s policy on inter-staff relationships. In a world where privacy seems an old-fashioned concept, it shouldn’t be a shock to hear a manager ask her employee “So how was the sex?” in clipped, measured tones, but it still produces a stunned, nervous giggle from the audience.
Bartlett has framed this as a simple two-header, with Rose Leslie’s Emma facing off against Sara Stewart’s deadpan manager over a desk as the stage almost imperceptibly revolves underneath the claustrophobic strip lighting. The tension is expertly ramped up as Emma’s relationship, and subsequently her life, is brutally ripped apart for the good of ‘The Company’. Bartlett is a past master at demonstrating the monstrosity of office politics, and in many ways this serves as a suitable companion piece to his later play Bull. Leslie’s slow psychological collapse as Stewart slowly turns the screw on her is similar to Sam Troughton’s character in that work.
Leslie is fantastic, her calm, self-assured manner slowly collapsing as the indignities mount up upon her – by the time she’s glaring wide-eyed at Stewart yelling “Do you bleed?”, you almost want to jump on stage and usher her away for her own protection. Stewart has the less showy role, but her cold-as-ice, impassive, dead-eyed performance is arguably even more impressive. Fly Davis’s stark set and Giles Thomas’s naggingly insistent score inbetween the interviews all just seem to amp up the intensity.
There are times where it threatens to go over the top for the sake of it, for example a sinister twist towards the end which won’t be spoilt here, but it does encapsulate the central message of the play: at what point is breaking point? When do you stop allowing our corporate masters to control our destiny? The answer, according to Bartlett, is a bleak one.
Contractions is on until 16th July 2016. Click here for more information.